Prologue: Years ago, I saw a new documentary premiere on the Discovery Channel called “The Ice Hotel”. (Author note: The ICEHOTEL has a webcam and a partner has a live feed.) Since then, it had been the place I wanted to visit more than anywhere else on the planet. I ordered the DVD and watched it many more times (shipped in a plain DVD case with the Discovery Channel store logo, because the less-in-demand shows are printed to order). If anyone knows when it originally aired on Discovery Channel, let me know. I knew it would be an expensive place, and likely part of an expensive trip, so one must save up for a while. Fortunately, I was able to do that. Granted, I’ve spent money on other travel destinations in the past that pushed the ICEHOTEL further into the future, but it all worked out, plus I had more travel experience and knew the proper gear, clothes, and gadgets to more adequately enjoy the trip. The story continues…
We land at Kiruna airport shortly before 3pm on Boxing Day, and it was already fully dark, and cold. Well done, Kiruna. There is no jetway directly into the terminal, so you exit the plane onto the tarmac and walk to the terminal. I’m used to that from my many journeys into and out of Bermuda, but that is a different climate. If you fly into Kiruna, be prepared for the weather before you leave the plane. If there are lots of people ahead of you, there may be a bottleneck at passport control and you might be standing outside longer than you expect.
Several buses are there to take us to the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, as we are part of a tour package. If you make your own reservations, you will be responsible for your own transportation. After check-in, you’re on your own. I found out that dinner reservations at the two local restaurants (the ICEHOTEL Restaurant and the Old Homestead Restaurant, both open all year long) are highly recommended, especially at the Old Homestead, as they will fill up quickly. I went to the ICEHOTEL restaurant the first two nights because the Old Homestead was already full, but I managed to get a table on my last night. My schedule had me in the Kaamos room (warm) for the first two nights, then a cold room (ice room) for the third night. The Kaamos rooms are in permanent buildings (useable all year long) that are just like any other hotel room you might expect: climate control, mattress beds, flat screen television, desk and closet space, private bathroom and shower. I only reserved one excursion (husky sledge ride) before arrival because none of the rest seemed interesting enough to pay in advance, plus they were expensive, so I would rather take the chance that there were spots left when I arrived. The nightly aurora trips were weather-dependent anyway, and could only be reserved on the day of the trip if the forecast was good. If there were no daytime excursions available, I would have no complaints spending the day walking around the ICEHOTEL or the neighboring streets.
I set myself up in my room, then head to the 24-hour Dressingroom to borrow a snowsuit and boots. People like to hang out here because it’s warm, with a fire, and offers free wi-fi, hot drinks (why pay for a hot choklad at the bar next to reception when it’s free here?), showers and sauna in the restrooms. There are also people who don’t want to sleep in the ice rooms (for whatever reason) and come back to the Dressingroom to sleep. This place is essentially the world’s most expensive hostel: 24-hour staffed desk, people coming and going all the time, travelers meeting other travelers and sharing stories, hanging out reading or playing games, and that’s not a bad thing. After all, everyone is there for one reason.
At dinner, I have the reindeer entrée, as that sounds local and something that I can’t get easily at home. The table water, and all local tap water, is from the Torne River, which freezes over and provides the ice blocks used to construct the hotel. After dinner, I take a walk down the street to find the convenience store, which turns out to be a small, but fully stocked, grocery store. It’s closed, but I plan to come back the next day to look for Swedish snacks and small meals if I want to save a little money. I can’t imagine it’s difficult to provide ice cold Coca-Cola up here. The television in the room supplies a few Swedish channels (English language shows and films have Swedish subtitles) and an English language news channel. The sky is cloudy, so the Northern Lights tour is cancelled.
The next morning, a well-appointed (and included) breakfast buffet is provided in the hotel restaurant. I try a few of the local delicacies and discover that pickled herring is not my thing. I fall back on the classics of fruit, eggs, beans and tomato on toast, yogurt, and oatmeal/porridge. My prepaid excursion is a husky sledge ride. We ride on 4-person (plus the musher) sleds through forested land and over the frozen river and stop at the halfway point, perhaps to let the dogs rest, perhaps to let the humans warm up by the fire in the cabin with some tea, coffee, and cake. I have learned that my two layers of gloves are not adequate to fight the cold, and occasionally lose feeling in the pinky fingers while holding the cameras (plural – GoPro and DSLR) for documentary purposes. Returning to the hotel, I go to the Activities desk in the Reception building to see if there will be a northern lights tour that night. Again, it is cancelled due to poor weather. Instead, I book a visit to a Sami reindeer farm. Lunch is in the hotel restaurant, then a return to the grocery store down the street, where I buy a sleeve of cookies.
The afternoon tour of the ICEHOTEL allows you to look at all the ice rooms to check out the ice sculpture artwork of the fancier rooms and suites. There are beds and furniture carved out of ice, along with dragons, horses, flower vines, UFOs, LEGO blocks, and the inside of a whale. The ICEHOTEL is open to visitors (paid admission) between 10am-6pm (sleepers can’t check in until 6pm for their night and must check out by 10am). The ICEBAR is open from 1pm-1am in winter. The drinking glasses are made of ice and you get to keep it, since it will eventually melt anyway (or you can reuse it if you keep it outside, as it will remain frozen). There are also official ICEBARs built in Stockholm, Oslo, and London if you can’t get to Jukkasjärvi. I didn’t visit the ones in Stockholm or London, since I had already visited the original. Another dinner at the hotel restaurant and back to the room for some local television that I can sort of understand.
Today I have to check out of the warm rooms and store my luggage in the Dressingroom until the afternoon, when I can check into the snow room and get an assigned locker for my stuff, but not until after breakfast. The excursion to the reindeer farm is on a sled towed by a snowmobile. There are more people than can fit on the sleds, so those people get to ride in a shuttle bus. That would have been a better option, because if you recall how I almost got frostbitten fingers on a dogsled, imagine a the wind chill factor when you’re on a faster snowmobile. The hotel also provides gloves and a balaclava in addition to the snowsuit and boots, but they were the stiff mitten-type, which sends your dexterity stat rating to zero. The “farm” was on Sami land, and wasn’t so much a farm, as a pen. They were wild reindeer, allowed to come and go, they weren’t captive or pets, but they were used to humans and had a touch of domestication, such they could be used to pull sleds with people or cargo. They had a small race track loop where the reindeer could pull you on a sled, some reindeer were more excited than others. We had a break for lunch in a teepee with fire, then it was off to a small museum and gift shop before returning to the hotel, where I was able to check out the finished church.
I check into my snow room and store my stuff before heading out to dinner at the Old Homestead Restaurant (about a mile down the road, past the grocery store). Before that, I stop at the activities desk and learn that there will be a Northern Lights excursion tonight, and I quickly get myself a reservation. It’s a long walk in the dark and snowing cold, but the restaurant is rather nice. The outside looks like someone’s home, and the inside is a rustic cabin with dim lighting. I have the burger, which is simple, yet good, and skip dessert.
The aurora hunt includes being driven in a van to various spots along the road to find good vantage points. We get to the end of the road and find one of the many ESA stations, where all the lights and trees would be a bad place to wait for any auroral activity. We stop along a straight piece of road with a decent view of the sky. Unfortunately, we were out on the exact night of the full moon, plus the vehicle lights were always on. Anyway, we did manage to see a bit of green glow (watch here), which was awesome anyway. It wasn’t the blazing ribbons of color you see in all the best time lapse photos, but I’ll take what I can get. Thanks to Alan and Julie for lending me their 28mm f/1.8 prime lens for this trip, all the aurora photos and videos were taken with this lens.
The snow room is the cheapest cold room (next level is ice room, then art suite), and adequate enough for me, just to have the experience. I have slept out in an open field in the Sierra Nevadas during Scout camp before, as part of the astronomy merit badge, and you know cold doesn’t bother me too much. If there is a next time, I might spend more on an ice art room, and knock out one night in a warm room (didn’t really need two nights there). My bed was in room 331, and consisted of ice block legs, with wooden pallets on it as the “mattress.” Layers of reindeer skins on the wood, pillows on top of that, and you pick up your sleeping bag in the Dressingroom. You are warned not to wear too many layers of clothes, as you want your body heat to warm up the inside of the bag. Too many clothes will end up trapping your body heat in the lowest layers, and keeping cold air between the bag and your outer clothing layer, which is a bad thing. Also, synthetic material is better than cotton in these conditions. They also recommend that you leave as much as you can in your locker, as mobile phones or extra clothes will freeze overnight, unless you keep them in your sleeping bag, which might not be too comfortable, or safe for your gadgets.
It was a bit smelly on the reindeer skins, and the bluish glow from the light underneath the bed filled the room, so if you prefer sleeping in darker conditions, bring an eyemask or pull a hat over your eyes. All you can hear is the crunching of snow and ice underfoot as people walk past your open door. The snow muffles sound extremely well, inside the hotel and outside. I woke up around 6am, no alarm needed, and often can’t fall back asleep after waking. In the cold, such as when camping, I like the mornings because the cold air is very refreshing and helps you wake up. I could have packed up and washed up before the crowds got there, but I wanted the hot lingonberry juice they bring when the staff walks through the all the ice rooms to wake everyone up around 730am. I brought my mp3 player in the bag with me and listened to some Nerdist podcasts while I waited. I could hear her walking down my corridor and was ready when she came in, I got my juice in a wooden cup and then packed up, hoping that not everyone would rush directly to the water closet and showers. I drop off my sleeping bag at the equipment desk and go for one last excellent breakfast. I know two of my stops at small hotels in Italy will include breakfast, but I was willing to wager they won’t provide as good a spread. This was, literally, definitively, a smörgåsbord.
After breakfast, I stop at the gift shop for souvenirs. I find a candle holder that looks cool, but might be too large for my luggage (look on the tables). They also have smaller, cheaper tea light holders in the shape of the small drink glass at the ICEBAR, which I like, but they are out of stock and they won’t get any more soon. I am told that they sell them online, but I check on my phone and the webshop was down for maintenance (as is still down as I publish this). I buy the larger candle holder and a deck of cards where each card has a photo of the ICEHOTEL. It’s like buying 52 small postcards. I also buy two t-shirts, because the special sale price for two shirts was less than the price to buy one of them. One of them might become a gift. I’ll just hope I have room through the rest of the trip for other stuff I buy, and hope that the smaller candle holder becomes available online, eventually. I know I’ll be discarding some clothes and toiletry stuff to save space and weight, but I might have to reduce the amount of DVDs I buy in London over the last two days before coming home because of this unexpectedly large thing. At least I’ll know exactly how much space I will have then.
Future side anecdote: airport security in Pisa (Galileo Galilei airport what!) pulled my bag aside to look at what was causing an unusual pyramid-shaped gap on the x-ray screen.
I skip lunch and have some cookies, since there will be food provided on the airplane (special charter flights have nice perks). The buses return to gather us all up to take up back to the airport to head back to London, and the main impetus of this trip comes to an end. See the rest of the photos of my time in Lapland on Flickr here.